A Sneaky Way to Tighten Up Your Writing

I say this a lot to writers—write first, then edit and rewrite. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get as many roadblocks out of the way when you’re writing your first draft. That is not the time to tighten up your writing. Focus on the content, not the word choice, sentence structure, conciseness, nada. If you were building a house, you wouldn’t be arranging furniture before you’ve built the walls. 

But once you have your ideas down, then you can start to tidy up a bit. Of course, there’s lots of ways to tidy up your work (there’s a whole profession based around that). But here’s an easy flag to look out for: cleft sentences.

What is a cleft sentence?

A cleft sentence, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a sentence that emphasizes one part of a simple sentence typically by transforming it into two clauses with the noun phrase to be emphasized in the first clause if it begins with it or following a form of be if the first clause begins with what.” 

Clear as mud? A cleft sentence is basically where the subject of the sentence is a sentence in itself, usually done to offer emphasis. I learn best by example:

It was during the Industrial Revolution that the city population grew with the influx of rural migrants. 

See those first two words? “It is.” Big tip-off. Cleft sentences typically start with the phrase “it is” or “there are” or sometimes “what/where/when/why.”

What’s wrong with a cleft sentence?

Typically, a cleft sentence’s weak sentence structure tends to confuse the reader. Just as a reminder, your boss, my boss, and the publisher’s boss is the reader. So if the reader gets confused, we’re all not doing our job.

Depending too heavily on “to be” structure also clogs up your writing. It buries the crux of your statement. There’s another whole sentence that your reader doesn’t need to be reading.

Is a cleft sentence bad?

Like most things, there’s a time and place for cleft sentences. But they should be used sparingly and only to emphasize a certain point. 

For example, a negative form can be helpful: It wasn’t until she began tracking her energy levels that she found a problem in her workflow.

Or It’s not that he didn’t want the job; it’s that he didn’t want to move to Tampa.

If you like to write how you speak or if you dictate your writing, you may find more of these in your first drafts. They’re common in everyday speech. When speaking, many tend not to notice them, and they’re not a big deal. But when they’re printed on a page or screen, people can spot them right away, and that’s when you should start rephrasing.

How to clean up unnecessary verbiage

Removing these cumbersome phrases is easy. First, when rereading your work, look for “it is,” “there is,” “there are,” and the like. Then find where the action is in your sentence and have that take center stage. Let’s look at the first example again.

Original: It was during the Industrial Revolution that the city population grew with the influx of rural migrants. 

Redo #1: During the Industrial Revolution, the city population grew with the influx of rural migrants.  

This is the easiest and most common fix: remove “it was” and “that,” and add a comma.

Redo #2: The city population actually grew during the Industrial Revolution due to the influx of rural migrants. 

If emphasis is still needed, use highlighting phrases (in turn, actually, essentially, etc., depending on the context and formality of your work). 

Redo #3: Due to the influx of rural migrants during the Industrial Revolution, city populations grew.

The rewrite will depend on what you intend to emphasize. Here I’m emphasizing the number of people moving in from the countryside.

Redo #4: As more rural migrants entered the city looking for work, the Industrial Revolution brought about a boom in city populations across Europe. 

There are a million ways to change your sentences to have more action and impact. 

Did you notice how many “it is”s and “there are”s were in this post alone? Those phrases are common (to wit, my first draft of this sentence was “It’s common to use those phrases”). They’re not bad on their own, but limiting them will do wonders for your work and your readers.

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